Last fall I visited the textile exhibit Interwoven Globe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was thrilled to see some incredible textiles up close. I may have crossed the security line once – triggering an alarm, eek. It’s just that some of the tapestries were so finely woven that I had to get close and squint to see the warp grooves. I attended the exhibition with a friend, to whom I gave a very rusty run-down of the history of tapestry designing as I remembered it from my studies at Capilano University. When we got home that day I put my son to sleep and proceeded to plunk down on the couch to sink my eyes into my beautiful new fabric-covered catalogue/book of essays from the exhibition. Sweet textile dreams ensued, as did my inspiration for this post. So, I went back to my old textbooks to fill the gaps of the timeline I was piecing together and thought I’d share it here.
Tapestry is one of those textile techniques that I often find myself daydreaming about. I have a deep respect for it, not only as an artistic medium, but also as a historical touchstone in art, particularly in relation to painting. I find the relationship between these two media fascinating since, in the contemporary fine art world, painting is generally thought of as having higher prestige than anything textile based. Yet, during the renaissance painters were commissioned to create paintings solely as tapestry designs, and earlier copies, for people who wanted a memory of frescos which were located on the walls of buildings that they no longer spent time in. Interestingly, it was commissions for tapestry designs by these kinds of artists (those who were painters, not tapestry designers) that lead to the loss of traditional tapestry weaving techniques.
In the mid 20th century there was a small group of tapestry historians who fervently addressed the importance of traditional design in tapestry, among them was French designer and weaver, Jean Lurcat. In order to fully appreciate and understand the works and teachings of Lurcat, one must view them in the context of the history of true tapestry – particularly in regards to the decline of it’s existence during the rise of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a period in which tapestry was somewhat re-invented, whereby traditional techniques were misplaced through the process of likening tapestry to paintings. Lurcat is largely responsible for tapestry’s revival when he redefined the importance of designing tapestry in a way that embraced the integrity of authentic tapestry from the middle ages; this would inspire artists like Picasso to acquire the skills to properly design tapestry cartoons.
It was in the beginning of the 14th century that tapestry was first recorded as being practiced. By this time the technique had been mastered – offering no reference as to when it was first put into practice. What we do know is that during the rise of the Renaissance in the early 16th century, the art of tapestry was alienated by a demand for the medium to emulate easel paintings. This led to traditional color blending techniques, like hasseur and hatching, to fall to the wayside, forcing tapestry to experience an identity crisis of sorts. Techniques like shape-building dominated this new presence, creating an aesthetic dissimilar to that of traditional tapestry in that it achieved shading and implied dimension by building shapes – as opposed to blending shapes and color with the aforementioned techniques. In essence this created a new art form, a derivative of tapestry.
This post is part one of a three-part essay. Come back next week for part two where we delve a bit deeper into the history of tapestry and learn how Jean Lurcat comes to feel so passionate about reviving it’s authenticity.
Also, when this series is done I will offer it as one downloadable essay with citations and footnotes!
Janna Maria Vallee